It would seem that Duchamp's tricks still work. Many visitors to Koo Jeong-a's exhibition backed off at the entrance, thinking the show was still being installed, a deduction prompted by a bottle of window-cleaning spray left in the middle of the gallery floor. A second glance revealed, however, that the bottle was part of the display and placed next to a carefully folded dirty cloth.
A Korean artist who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, it is tempting to define Koo Jeong-a's work - with its decorative, delicate display and arrangements of forms - in relation to both the tradition of the readymade and to a stereotypical Eastern aesthetic. Yet her work resists this double cliché, gradually sucking the viewer into a very peculiar atmosphere.
A glass of water beneath a bench - its rim stained, indicating it has been there for a few days - the bottle of spray and cloth, a step ladder, a small rug, a CD player half hidden in a cupboard and a couple more objects which Koo used in the process of installing the show, are all clues of the artist's presence. They draw the viewer into the work, giving an atmosphere of inhabited space rather than an impersonal gallery. The music, water and spray indicate a sense of duration, of the psychological and physical involvement of the artist who has created a charged atmosphere through her conscientious labour.
Discrete works are scattered throughout the gallery in unlikely places. They include a video in which Koo follows the movements of a little dog in the confined space of a flat: several simple white sculptures made of plasticine; and some minimal assemblages made from mundane objects and fragments organised onto horizontal surfaces which create abstract patterns of colours and forms. A shelf placed in front of a mirror contains a colourful of little figures, a miniaturised reunion in which the toys are interspersed with needles and razor blades. The juxtaposition of sweetness, regression and sadism is too obvious, or at least certainly more so than in Abstract House #1 (1999), in which the viewer has to deal with, amongst other objects, the association of undulating heaps of salt, a shoe box and a biro.
Unlike Sarah Sze's accumulation of objects bought from discount stores and DIY shops, Koo brings together second-hand things imbued with their own history. Like Dubuffet, who represented tabletops because of the role they play in intellectual activities, Jeong-a's horizontally laid out still lives such as Abstract house #2 (1994-99) - obsessively meticulous arrangements of crumpled paper, cards and pencils carefully preserved over the years by the artist - offer glimpses into her thought processes. Each piece of rubbish has been allocated its place with the utmost precision - you can imagine Koo manipulating the forms with the swiftness and precision of street corner card sharps, shifting and swapping cards to deceive the players. The formally pleasing arrangements contrast with the worthlessness of the objects, a thought-provoking combination of sophistication and triviality.
Writing about her work is like attempting to piece together the fragments of last night's dream: accumulations of vague and ill-defined memories and images which are impossible to rationalise but somehow make sense. Koo's best pieces work in such a way: Abstract House #3 (1999) is a candy box filled with foreign coins, some of which have been stopped just before they roll out. The implications of the piece are obvious - that a work of art exists solely for the purpose of awakening the sensations and reminiscences of the viewer.
First published in Issue 48